Julie McDowall (@JulieAMcDowall) usually writes about nuclear war, in fact she’s got a book on that subject coming out soon. But, a few days ago she mentioned on Twitter that she has synaesthesia (the condition where the senses are “mixed up”, so that a person with condition can smell music or see colours when they touch different textures). She said that to her different names conjure up different tastes. Needless to say, everyone who follows her on Twitter wants to know what their name tastes like.
The thread has gone viral, she has had 6 million twitter interactions as of 29th January. She has been truly overwhelmed by the response and the requests, thousands of them, and is now only offering her synaesthetic insight if a person with a name she hasn’t already tweeted about comes along and offers a donation to a worthy cause (her podcast).
Here’s a taste of the names and what they suggest tastewise to McDowall:
Aaron is a stale chocolate bar
Danielle is spaghetti hoops
Sam – tuna
Madison – earwax with chocolate
Jesus – Maltesers
Susan is a zip, but Susannah is a zippable banana
Hannah is a tasteless banana
Paddy is a fat, damp squishy notepad
Ross tastes like sausage rolls and rubber gloves
Simone is a slice of Spam
Shane is a mouthful of furniture polish
Nicky is a biscuit dipped in vinegar
Violet is a perfumed cream
John, is a leathery button on an old man’s cardigan
Apparently, it works for abstract concepts too, as well as personal names:
Brexit is a snapped KitKat
Remain is a Jammy Dodger
Now, this whole concept of synaesthesia? Perhaps you’re thinking how can such a phenomenon be real? Well, it most certainly is, as can those people with the condition attest and almost everyone who has tripped on LSD where such effects become part of the whole hallucinogenic experience. Fundamentally, of course, it’s obvious that it could arise. After all, our senses sample the “outside” world of tastes, sights, sounds, textures, smells, but the input to the brain from our sensors (tongue, eyes, ears, skin, nose) is nothing but an electrochemical signal transmitted along nerves. The brain has to somehow interpret the input as being different given the sensor that sent it the signal. If there’s crosstalk between the wiring or the brain’s circuitry doesn’t interpret the signal properly as arises on an LSD trip or in synaesthesia then the input from the tongue might be interpreted as a sound, a sight given a reference smell, or any combination of the senses and what they are supposed to be.
The infant brain receiving signals from all the different sensory organs is wired up as the baby develops, but prior to that it’s turmoil, the signals are crossed, the balance distorted, and some people deviate from the norm, even into adulthood.
One more point about sensory input and what the brain does about it. I wrote a piece for Discover magazine many years ago about a blind German who had a light sensor surgically connected to the nerves in part of his tongue. Eventually, with some training, his brain could eventually interpret a pattern of light hitting that sensor as something he could “see”. He had not been blind from birth, but it just shows that even if the brain “knows” which sensory organ is being stimulated it can work around that to interpret those electrochemical neuronal signals and a novel way.
I suspect we could learn a lot from synaesthesia and the people who have this remarkable condition.
Oh, by the way, McDowall thinks David/Dave has an amazing taste: “plastic spade dug into the damp sand on Blackpool beach”.
Also check out the twitter thread from a friend who is also a synaesthete, Alice Sheppard. She experiences sounds in colours, and so can give you a colour for your name. “People love to hear how synaesthetes experience their name,” she told me. I asked her to “do” my name:
“David: overall bright apple green, but with an orangey yellow stripe fairly early on, and a small white one a bit later. Bradley: strong bright mustard yellow, tapering off to soft greyish pale blue towards the end.”
Apparently, the jazz group California Guitar Trio have a taste/sound synaesthete friend who cooked them a meal based on the tastes of their album…